Genesis 3 records Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God. They succumbed to the temptation to place themselves at the center of their world and make themselves the moral authority. The irony was that in seeking to become more than they were they became much less.
Adam and Eve’s actions destroyed shalom (i.e., Absence of War, harmonious relationships, personal welfare of people and animals, prosperity, justice, peace of mind). God explained that as a consequence of their actions the complimentary relationship between man and women would be filled with strife and their work with creation would be frustrated. The story of Cain and Abel shows humanity’s increasing estrangement from God. Because Cain feels diminished by his brother, he kills him. He shows no remorse as God sends him off to settle in Nod (the land of wandering.)
Cain finds himself with complete autonomy but also no purpose to his existence. He is mortal and seeks immortality by building a civilization (a home) for himself in the form of a city and he starts a family to carry his legacy forward. He names both the city and his first son Enoch, which means “to initiate.” Cain initiated human existence outside of God’s presence. The narrative then tells of the “sevenfold vengeance” where one man repays a murder with seven murders. Polygamy emerges. Created for relationship, human beings find themselves cut off from God, alienated from themselves as they desperately seek purpose, engulfed in murderous conflict against neighbors, and gathered in a city to protect themselves from a hostile natural world over which they were to have dominion.
The situation degenerates to the point that God decides to start over with the remnant of Noah’s family. He gives Noah the same commission he gave Adam and Eve about multiplying and feeling the earth. The narrative then picks up the story of the people at Babel, unified in a common mission of building a tower up to God and bringing him down. In so doing, they will “make a name for themselves” indicating the assertion of their own authority. God intervenes by confusing the people and ending their unity. Babel, or Babylon goes on to become the metaphor for rebellious humankind apart from God.
G. K. Chesterton wrote,
When a religious scheme is shattered it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also, and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they are isolated from each other and are wandering alone. (1)
While Chesterton was writing about “religious schemes,” the state of affairs he describes is a perfect description of the human condition apart from God. Relationship and meaning are literally “dis-integrated.” (See Rebel Eikons post for more background.)
Human beings live in a state of disoriented lawlessness (what sociologists call “anomie”). Human beings were created to be stewards over creation under God. Through rebellion, they have been “cut loose from their mooring” in God. They are alienated from God, disoriented from personal meaning, and in conflict with neighbor and nature.
Settled in the land of wandering
The achievement of autonomy by finite human beings is the height of absurdity. Yet human beings have cut themselves off from God, the only source of meaning. Consequently, as delusional as it may be, human beings are ever engaged in the enterprise of “making a home” (building civilization) for themselves that by definition is an illusion. They choose not to honor God and they can’t live without meaning.
At the root of sin and rebellion is the desire to live autonomously and eternally. The perpetuation of the community is what gives the illusion of immortality. Consequently, all alternative challenges to the illusionary “home” a community creates must be suppressed or meaning will be lost. Conquest and subjugation of all challengers, foreign and domestic, even nature itself, must be conquered.
The desire for individual autonomy is ever present with human beings and presents a challenge to community survival. Individuals are often faced with the dilemma of wanting total autonomy but needing community to have meaning. Thus, there is always a tension in every human society between conformity that perpetuates community and yet placates a desire for personal autonomy.
Since human beings were created to be stewards over the created world, economics is at the heart of human made civilization. The inclination is toward autonomous ownership by either individuals or the state.
(1) G. K. Chesterton. Orthodoxy. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1924. 30-31.